Didier Drogba Leaves China: Inside a Failed Soccer Experiment

Though the Ivory Coast star didn't last long in Shanghai, China will keep trying to spend its way to sports supremacy

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Aly Song / REUTERS

Shanghai Shenhua striker Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast attends a training session in Shanghai, July 16, 2012.

Last fall Zhu Jun, a Chinese Internet multimillionaire who convinced the Didier Drogba to join his Shanghai Shenhua football club, noted that Drogba had a two-and-a-half year contract. Despite rumors that Drogba was on his way out, the relationship between player and team “wasn’t a one-night stand.”

Zhu was right. The relationship between the star Ivorian striker and the mediocre Chinese team was actually a six-month fling. Now after half a season in a Chinese league better known for poor play and corruption—the “Allegedly Super League,” as the Guardian once called it last year—Drogba is leaving for the Turkish side Galatasaray. For most of Drogba’s short stay in China, talk swirled about his imminent departure as Zhu battled Shenhua’s other owners for control and wages for some of the team’s foreign players reportedly went unpaid. This week the long expected exit finally happened, after Galatasaray announced it had signed Drogba to an 18-month deal that will see him earn $13.5 million and a per-game fee of $20,000. After the Chinese season ended in November, Drogba had discussed playing on loan for Chelsea, the club he left last summer after leading them to a Champions League title. The move was blocked by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body. Shenhua are challenging Drogba’s move to Galatasaray, saying he still has two years on his contract.

(MORE: Didier Drogba Becomes China’s Biggest Soccer Import)

Drogba, 34, arrived in Shanghai as a conquering hero but was faced with a terribly unglamorous task: dragging Shenhua up from the basement of the Super League. He showed the same enthusiasm with which he attacked the world’s top defenses in Europe, energizing a team that was sitting in 13th place in a league of 16 teams when he arrived. Even Nicolas Anelka, a former Chelsea teammate who had come to Shenhua six months ahead of Drogba, showed moments of newfound inspiration. For most of his year in China, however, Anelka displayed the same indifference to competing that he had as a French international during the 2010 World Cup, when he led a team revolt against the coach and was sent home early. Last week Italian squad Juventus said it had signed Anelka on a loan for the remained of the season.

(BRIEF HISTORY: World Cup Meltdowns)

But while Anelka lived up to his nickname of “Le Sulk” while at Shenhua, Drogba showed he is one of the hardest working men in the sport. Last year he went from the European season almost directly into the Chinese season and will now join Galatasaray’s Turkish and Champions league campaigns after he finishes with the African Cup of Nations, where he is representing the Ivory Coast.

He hardly takes a breather on the pitch. I watched him play for Shenhua against Dalian Shide on a sweltering August night last year. He was aggressive and direct—plowing into opposing players, flailing for loose balls, crumpling at the slightest touch in hopes of drawing a foul. At one point midway through the second half, while double-marked in the opposition corner, he lofted a shot from an improbable angle that clanged off the crossbar. Aside from Drogba though, Shenhua showed little guile. They often got bogged down in midfield and had a hard time delivering the ball to their star striker. The game ended in a scoreless draw.

For the first two months after Drogba arrived Shenhua were undefeated in league play. They finished in ninth place, better than they were sitting midseason but far off the team’s goal of finishing in the top four and thus qualifying for the Asian Champions League. For Chinese football fans long used to failure and frustration, particularly when their men’s national team faces foreign competition, the significance of Drogba’s arrival was not just about what he meant for Shenhua or even the Super League, but what he meant for the sport in China as a whole. Zhu, the Shenhua chairman, told me last fall that he thought Drogba could help elevate the country’s level of play. “In China people don’t know what organized football is,” Zhu said. “They certainly won’t listen to me. So I brought in a star to show them. Every day they can see what a good player Drogba is and how he plays football. And then they will realize what football is.”

Such justification is a bit like saying that by buying a Ferrari you can help everyone get home faster by improving traffic flow. Still, the wages paid at Drogba by Shanghai—he was reportedly making $200,000 a week—plus the lucrative sponsorship deals from companies targeting the China market, means more big names will follow. And while rich teams bankrolled by tycoons spending their way to victory may sound wearily familiar to fans of European soccer — and, say, baseball in America — it’s a welcome change in China, where owners and officials have been known to buy success more directly, by paying off a referee or a few corrupt players. Chinese teams are still nowhere close to the standard of those from England, Germany, Spain or Italy. But if throwing ridiculous sums at big name players is any measure, they’re starting to even the score.

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